By year's end, nearly every Jewish congregation and organization in the East Bay will plug into the Internet to reach more Jews — and one another.
Dubbed "FedNet: On-line with the Jewish Community of the Greater East Bay," the project will thrust 22 synagogues and more than 20 agencies and groups into cyberspace much sooner than if they'd tried going online individually.
The Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay is coordinating FedNet. Only two other federations in the country — Seattle and Portland — are known to have launched similar projects.
"I think it was somewhat visionary of the federation," said Rabbi Howard Zack of Oakland's Beth Jacob Congregation. "This offers small congregations the chance to get involved in this technology which so quickly has overtaken everything."
FedNet — whose Internet address is http://www.jfed.org/ — has been online for about a month. Internet surfers already can skim a community calendar, request a newcomer's guide to the East Bay, enroll in Lehrhaus Judaica classes, read up on a local artist, and learn about the upcoming Bay Area Jewish Women's and Why Be Jewish? conferences.
In addition, each congregation and organization soon will have e-mail, free and unlimited access to cyberspace, and its own site on the World Wide Web — the Internet's multimedia section that combines text with photographs, graphics, video and sound.
Groups hooking up with the project include two day schools, two Jewish community centers, U.C. Berkeley Hillel, Judah L. Magnes Museum, Israel Center, Chochmat HaLev and Oakland's Home for Jewish Parents.
The addition of web pages for 22 congregations to the Internet will exponentially increase the presence of area synagogues in cyberspace.
Right now, only three other Northern California congregations — all of them in Palo Alto — are known to have web pages.
Without FedNet, Zack said, it might have been years before his Orthodox congregation would have set aside the time and resources to go online.
Though Beth Jacob's web page is still under construction, Zack already has envisioned using the site to spread information about preschool, youth religious school and adult classes, as well as to post commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Zack also is excited about the potential of instantly contacting his fellow rabbis in the East Bay instead of calling them individually.
"I can zap them all e-mail," he said.
In addition to creating web pages for each congregation and agency, the federation is providing 18 matching grants of up to about $900 each to every group that needs a modem or a computer with enough memory to cruise cyberspace. This week, the federation ordered all of the computer equipment.
The online project is being launched with help from Donald and Carole Chaiken of Lafayette, who provided $27,000 for grants and startup costs.
"I'm personally not computer literate. I'm obsolete," joked Donald Chaiken, who is chairman of the federation's board of trustees. "I doubt I will ever be sitting in front of a screen for any amount of time…But I thought it would be very helpful to the community."
In November and December, federation workers will train someone at each synagogue and organization how to use the system and update their own web pages.
"It's a big order," said Jamie Hyams, project administrator and community services director of the federation's Center for Jewish Living and Learning.
But, she added, that's exactly why the federation took on the project, which is part of the "Year 1: The Future is Now" campaign to reinvigorate East Bay Jewish life.
Hyams hopes FedNet will help unaffiliated Jews turn onto more activities.
"It's a non-threatening way for people to get involved with the community," she said.
Ami Nahshon, executive director of the East Bay federation, said he believes FedNet will particularly reach young adults who aren't sure how to plug into the community.
"These are precisely the same people who are connected into the information highway," he said.
Saving money isn't part of the project's stated goals, but Hyams said that FedNet eventually will lower costs for the federation. Sending the community calendar out on the Internet versus the mail, for example, could save the federation up to $175 every other month. And sending e-mail to Israel or the East Coast costs practically nothing compared to making a long-distance phone call.
While the project is geared primarily toward the East Bay, Hyams said that the federation will help synagogues outside its area put up web pages too.
The idea for the project originated more than a year ago when federation officials considered using computers to aid their accountants who keep the books for many East Bay groups, Hyams said.
The federation's Commission on Jewish Continuity expanded the idea. In January, the commission outlined ways to rekindle spiritual life in the East Bay. Among its more than 50 suggestions: connecting to the Internet to increase communication within the Jewish community and to tap into online educational resources.
Hyams, formerly a computer novice, has been learning how to create web pages and educating East Bay officials about the Internet. Robert Pavel, the federation's computer systems manager, has been handling the technical aspects of the project.
Right now, about half of FedNet's nearly 50 web pages are still under construction. And about a half-dozen of the accessible pages offer only the most basic information — the organization's name, address and telephone number. Other pages offer information but not the jazzy graphics usually associated with the World Wide Web.
"It's a work in progress," Hyams acknowledged. "It will be functional…and hopefully get more sophisticated."
When the Magnes Museum adds its web site to the project, for example, net surfers will be able to view artwork and hear a shofar being blown. But for now the site's future is on hold while museum officials untangle possible copyright problems with putting artists' work online.
There are other limitations too. The federation's project doesn't currently include so-called "chat rooms," the areas where online users gather to communicate instantaneously. So the possibility of cyberspace meetings among East Bay rabbis, for example, doesn't exist.
But Nahshon said he believes that within a couple of years, FedNet will be able to offer chat rooms as well as "bulletin boards," which allow net users to post public messages and read others' comments and discussions.
He also envisions FedNet offering an online volunteer job bank, linking local organizations to their counterparts in Israel, and aiding Jewish study projects.
"We have just begun to lay a foundation," he said. "It will take a lot of time, expertise and dedication from community members to help build the house."